The Year That COVID Transformed

How Science Survived, Responded and Thrived

An illustration of someone turning Location T off.

The first public glimpses of the global COVID-19 pandemic trace back to December 2019, when a cluster of people suffering fever and shortness of breath from an unknown pathogen emerged in Wuhan, China. By January 2020, the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were cranking up their responses as initial reports revealed that a novel coronavirus was on the loose.

Quickly, cases popped up in other countries. Then on Jan. 17, 2020, the first US case was reported involving a nursing home patient in Washington state. The virus spread like wildfire. By March, a national emergency had been declared. New York City closed its schools. Shutdowns started happening everywhere—including here at Cincinnati Children’s.

As of July 1, 2020, the beginning of fiscal 2021, 127,681 Americans were dead from exposure to SARS-CoV-2. The worst pandemic since 1918 grimly steamrolled every rosy prediction that the situation would be akin to a bad flu season. By June 30, 2021, the end of fiscal 2021, the death toll had reached 604,656. By the end of 2021, more than more than 824,000 Americans had died.

In between, every day was a COVID day and everything about care, research and work for more than 16,000 employees at Cincinnati Children’s had been affected.

An illustration of children and adults lining up for the COVID vaccine.

Thousands of office workers began working from home. Non-urgent services were temporarily closed. Hospital access was limited to essential personnel entering doors guarded by PPE-garbed staff wielding thermometer guns. While legions of workers took crash courses in Skype, Teams and Zoom calling, the once-minimal use of telemedicine exploded into a crucial standard practice.

Amid the swirling events, leadership teams at the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation bore down on the details of how to safely shutter massive chunks of a research enterprise that includes thousands of active projects funded by more than $271 million in grant awards per year. While some labs could continue some of their tasks from home, many experiments could not be easily or quickly paused. Some work could not be stopped at all without wasting millions of dollars and uncounted hours of work—which required staff to learn new ways to function.

Yet even as scientists scrambled to protect their teams from exposure risks, many also found themselves suddenly switching gears. Their expertise in fields including vaccine research, infectious diseases, immunology, cardiology, mental health, hospital medicine, critical care, human genetics, bioinformatics, and improving systems of care required putting down day-to-day science to join the battle against COVID.